Ancient Mesopotamian Ships,Boats for River Transportation

Mesopotamia means “land between two rivers.” The rivers are called the Tigris and Euphrates. Mesopotamians built boats to use for trading in distant places and to collect food from the rivers. Modern Iraqi boats still are built very much like this Mesopotamian boat used 4,500 years ago.

Both the earliest civilizations, the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian, make extensive use of boats for transport on the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris.

It is possible that the boat designs and techniques used in the third millennium are no longer present in traditional boats of present-day Iraq and those of oceangoing vessels sailing in the modern day Arabian Gulf. Based on iconographic evidence, it seems that Mesopotamian riverboats had flat bottoms and high curving ends, with a stem often ending in an elaborate design.

Cultic vessels imitated the shape of a papyri form vessel. The riverine vessels in practical use described in texts, such as AO 5673, most probably had square ends. The use of bitumen might have allowed the Mesopotamian shipwrights to build hulls in which water tightness (before the application of a bitumen layer) was not the primary concern.

Lack of shipbuilding timber in Mesopotamia was a contributory factor to reed boat construction. There is a long tradition of Mesopotamian boats built of wood. From the clay tablets we know that Dilmun shipwrights imported wood for their ships; the merchants stamped the scals recording such transactions.

Interestingly, one of the myths of the Mesopotamian Sargon the Great of Akkad was that as an infant he floated in a bitumen-coated reed basket down the Euphrates River.

In the cities, long docks were built along the sides of the rivers so that ships could easily dock and unload the goods they had to trade. Ships brought food, drinks, clothes, jewelry, wine, and other goods up and down the rivers.

Boats were used to transport goods from southern Mesopotamia to the Gulf. These boats were probably larger and stronger than river boats. Some were made of bundles of reeds and others of wood covered with bitumen. Babylonian merchants travelled with their goods to places like Dilmun.

Representations of Mesopotamian boats are found on seals, in reliefs, and as models. Usually these lack definitive details that would enable fuller understanding of the involved technologies. Resultant studies such as Quall’s Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C., and de Grave’s The Ships of the Ancient Near East (c. 2000-500 B.C.), contribute only to our theoretical understanding of Mesopotamian vessels.